Author: Tina Eckerlin
The Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of those places that you will never forget. I had been dreaming of this trail for some time, and was finally able to visit this rugged trail last August 2022.
Lake Superior Provincial Park was officially established in 1944. It is one of Ontario's largest parks, sitting upon the eastern shores of 160 810 hectares of land, with 3158 mapped lakes and 200 km of paddling routes. The park is situated between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa, Ontario. This land lies within the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, specifically the Three Fires Confederacy of the Ojibway, Odawa, and Potawatomi people, in the Robinson–Superior Treaty.
In the late winter of 2022, I visited Ontario Parks online reservation system to book my sites. Unlike many other parks, there were still a lot of free sites. I had my plan and map of the mileage, and my chosen sites of this 65 km end-to-end trail.
I was able to book most of my first choices, but had to book a few that were closer or further than ideal. There are a few spots, like in every park that are always booked due to popularity.
If you choose to do an end-to-end hike and not a yo-yo, your options are: two vehicles (one parked at Agawa Bay Visitors Centre and one at Gargantua Road trailhead). You can then drive to the trail head, hike and get into the second vehicle to go pick up the first.
You can also arrange a shuttle service. The two companies I called for quotes were U Wanna Cab and Lake Superior Adventures. At the time, I was quoted about $350 for the shuttle from my parked vehicle at Agawa Bay Visitors Centre to the Gargantua Road trailhead.
If you can afford this or share the costs with a group, that is great. I chose the last option - hitchhiking.
On a hot and humid morning in August, I loaded my gear into my truck and set off. I would be driving about four hours until I reached a friends place where I would spend the night. It gave me a chance to visit and break up the ten and a half hour drive from my home to the park.
The following morning I set out to finish my six and a half hour drive to Lake Superior Provincial Park.
I hit storms as I neared Sault Ste. Marie. The sky was dark grey and the rain was coming down in sheets. I had to pull over multiple times, and wait out the weather until I could see out my windshield.
By the time I pulled into the Agawa Bay Visitors Centre to check in, I was almost three hours past my ETA. The rain had let up for now, but the fog made for a slow drive.
My first few campsites were very close to the Gargantua trailhead. I was booked for a Chalfant Cove campsite, only 8 or 10 km from the trailhead. The problem was that I needed to hitchhike the 40 km to Gargantua Road, and then hitchhike or walk the 14 km down the backroad to the trailhead.
I was confident that I could get a hitch down the highway quickly. However, I was concerned that this late in the day, not many cars would be driving to the trailhead. Which in turn may leave me with 24+km to cover to my campsite in the nearing dark.
I decided to sleep in my truck. I spoke to the staff in the Visitors Centre. They told me it would be fine as I had a parking permit for the next 6 days.
So, I boiled some water and rehydrated my allotted supper for the night and curled up like a pretzel on the bench in backseat of my truck. It was not ideal, but it was safer than trying to rush a trail in the rain and dark.
I hit the highway with my premade sign and my thumb. I caught a ride within 5 minutes right outside the Visitors Centre. The gentleman who picked me up was kind, and dropped me off right at Gargantua Road, 40 km from the Agawa Bay Visitors Centre.
I started walking down the narrow single land dirt road. It was about 9:00 am. I was hoping that someone would drive by to save my legs for the trail, but I knew I had all day if needed.
Finally, 7 km down the road a car finally drove by, and stopped to ask if I was ok. I guess she thought I was lost! I asked if she would give me a lift to the trailhead. She was driving to pick up her husband who was cycling down the road.
Once we arrived at the trailhead, at least 5 more cars came down the road. I noted that if I was to hike this trail again, that I would wait at the beginning of the road from 10:00 am onward for on-coming traffic.
I stopped at the trailhead sign for a modest photo, and started down the trail.
The first couple of kilometres are a wide logging trail that could accomodate a car driving through. There 3 campsites at Gargantua North, just a few minutes from the trailhead. So if you choose to arrive late in the day, you can make these sites in a few minutes.
I was headed to Warp Bay. My plan was to hike to the bay, drop some gear and hike in and out to Chair Island to see Devil's Chair. I would then hike the next morning up to Chalfant Cove where I was supposed to be the day before, then double back down to my next site.
The trail was quite easy going and fast. The trail came to a beautiful field, and back into the forest. There were a few mucky spots and I crossed a nice bridge over the Gargantua River, making a hard left. I didn't hike up to the falls just a short distance right of the bridge.
A bit further down the trail I came to the trail junction for Warp Bay and Chalfant Cove. The junction is about 7 km from the trailhead. I continued the 1.25 km towards Warp Bay, with the last section hosting a smooth rockface to scramble over.
Suddenly, the conifers opened up to what seemed to be a tropical beach with smooth sand.
The first site is large and wooded at the corner where the Gargantua River meets Warp Bay. It also hosts a bear locker. I continued on to check out the other sites.
The next 4 sites were similar, with the second being my choice. This site had a privy box, while the next couple sites hosted a share housed outhouse and bear locker.
I sat down to eat my lunch. I met a couple of day hikers and shortly after another couple who were just arriving to camp.
I dropped all the gear I didn't need like my tent and sleep system to head up to Devils Chair. I hung some stuff in the trees, and left the rest on the picnic table to let others know my spot was claimed. I headed north towards Chair Island.
The trail was easy, but not very well maintained. A few areas were a bramble of plant growth nearly 5 feet high.
I finally reached the lookout marked on the map to see Devil's Chair. It was so over-grown, I was barely able to catch a glimpse of it. I made my way back to my site. The trail markers stated that it was 2 km each way to Chair Island lookout. My GPS begged to differ. Instead of a 4 km return trip, it was just over 5 km.
This is not a big deal, but one thing my experience has taught me is that all of these small mileage discrepancies can add up and alter your itinerary. I was hoping that the rest of the trail was closer to the mileage stated, as I had some big days ahead where a few extra kilometres could mean hiking in the dark.
My distance today was a total of 20.48 km, including the 7 km on the backroad, hiking to my site and my side trip to Chair Island. It had been a wonderful day. I set up camp, set my supper to soak and took a cold dip in Lake Superior. This site location was something out of the Caribbean. I stayed up as long as I could watching the waves hit the shore.
It stormed all night. The morning was grey and rainy, with thunder and lightening and crazy winds.
I packed up camp. The weather forecast called for intense winds and thunderstorms for the day. I decided it would be safest to just hike to my next spot rather than bolt up quickly to Chalfant Cove, and decided to head straight to my next campsite at Gargantua South, just a bit south of the trailhead.
As I neared my campsite the rain and winds subsided, and by the time I set up my camp at site #5 the sun was shining.
The site was quite small, with barely enough room to set up my 2-person non-free standing tent. But there was a bear box at the top to the side trail, and a large round stone beach.
I was disappointed that I didn't head up to the northern point of Chalfant Cove, but if the weather had persisted, it could have been a dangerous situation exposed in the storm.
The plus side was that it was only an easy 9 km from my last site. With such an early day, I could rest up for some tougher hiking tomorrow. I had all afternoon to enjoy the site, and spent it on the shore. I took a quick dip in the cold water. I stayed close to the shore, as the waves were very strong, and then watched the sunset.
I knew today was going to be a long day. I had planned for the first day (when I chose to sleep in my truck) and yesterday to be short days, but I had some grueling days ahead of me over difficult terrain. The next couple of days would be the most difficult to hike, and the most remote. So, I had a coffee on the shore watching the sunrise before leaving.
Heading south out of camp started with an uphill climb. The forest was moss covered and full of ferns. It was so boreal that I would have thought I was on the coast of an ocean!
Temperatures were starting to heat up as they do in Eastern Canada. The rest of the week would be getting hotter with each day over +30 degrees Celsius.
The shore line changed from the smooth round stones to jagged rock outcrops and large boulders.
I got turned around a couple of times, and could see where others had gone the same way I did, bushwhacking a bit until I reached the shore. The great thing about this trail is that if you find the shore, you will eventually find the trail. If you are Northbound, the shore will be on your left. If you are Southbound, the shore will be on your right.
I hiked up and down. Over cliffs and down cliffs. Over boulders and weaving into the forest out onto the ever changing shore.
I stopped for a quick lunch at Rhyolite Cove, where the beach looked alien and the cove was calm.
I hiked on and came across round stone beds in the forest, wondering to myself if these were evidence of water levels at at different time.
It was a very long day, and I neared my campsite at Beatty Cove in the early evening.
It was a busy spot. Of the 4 sites, 3 were taken by kayakers. I was eager to set up camp, eat and go to bed. The fourth site at the Northern end was free. The site was littered with toilet paper everywhere. So much that there was no area to set up my tent. This site shared a walled outhouse with site #3, so I guess the previous occupants were too lazy to walk the distance. I decided to set my tent up just outside the camp area on the beach.
I set my supper to rehydrate and took a dip in the cold water to wash off the day. Before bed I went to place my food in the provided bear locker, and was almost knocked out by the smell. The bin was half a foot deep of rotting food and garbage. So, I shared the bear locker at the site next to me, since we were sharing an outhouse.
I was disappointed with the site and peoples complete disregard for nature and others. I would make sure to let the Park Wardens know that the site needed to be cleaned up.
Gargantua South to Beatty Cove was a long and rough 13.62 km. Don't let the low mileage fool you, it is a long haul! I would advise others to choose a closer site, unless you are experienced, know your skill level and are prepared for a long day.
I woke at dawn, with a lot of condensation in my tent. The footbox of my sleeping bag was damp despite having my tent opened and vented.
The dew on the rocks made maneuvering the boulders tricky for the first few hours until the sun hit the shore. I made my way to Orphan Lake where I crossed a well made bridge over the Baldhead River. I was getting close to Bald Head, the highest point on the trail.
As I made my way up Bald Head there were only a couple of spots that required extra effort. All-in-all it was an easy climb. I could hear the highway and I knew I would need to cross it to get back on the trail.
I passed the 2 Coldwater North sites before taking the trail to the highway to cross the Coldwater River. I came to the first Northern site of Coldwater South. It was very large and had large smooth red-grey outcrops to the water. A family was visiting for the day and were swimming there, so I moved on to the next sites.
I claimed the Southern most site as it was larger and I needed to dry my gear from the mornings condensation. It was late afternoon, a lot earlier than the day before. I hiked 12.45 km, but it was not as difficult as the day before. It was a beautiful sandy bay, and I had plenty of time to swim, relax and enjoy the evening.
I woke up at dawn to the thick and hot humid air. I packed up quickly, as I knew I had a long day today. Perhaps longer than I could manage.
The trail continued to weave in and out of the forest to the shore with smooth bedrock formations to large boulders. It started to drizzle, and continued off and on for the day. It became slow going over the rock sections with the footing being treacherous and slippery.
Under dark grey clouds I was climbing over a smooth bedrock area jutting out into Lake Superior. I heard a loud screech, and a bald eagle left its tree it was perched on, and soared above me.
The trail started coming out to long sand beach stretches where I could make up more time.
I crossed the highway at Sand River, the water looked deeper and faster than I thought was safe, and near the crossing area the sand was sinking with every footstep. I decided to hit the highway bridge.
There was construction down to one lane and I wasn't sure how to safely get through the narrow lane. One of the workers let me use their board walk across.
I came upon the sites at Barrett River that had two women enjoying the view. We chatted for a few minutes and they offered me a chair and some great conversation as I caught my breath.
I crossed the Barrett River instead of crossing at the highway. It wasn't too deep or fast moving.
I kept going. It was the hottest day yet and the humidity from the rain and heat made the air thick. I could barely keep myself hydrated as I was sweating it out faster than I could replenish it.
I was at Sinclair Cove according to the map. There was a small parking area and a boat launch. I had about an hour and a half of light left. It was hard to tell with the grey skies.
I weighed my options. My reserved site was at Agawa Point. I estimated that I had about 5 more kilometres to the site, with a an old rock slide area of very technical terrain and footing to get through. I estimated that it would take about three more hours to get there with the terrain. I also wanted to see the Agawa Rock Pictographs.
With the fading light and the looming rock slide area that would be slick from the rain, I decided to camp on the beach for safety. I am not adverse to night-hiking, but trying to rush through dangerous and technical wet terrain in the dark seemed liked a bad idea.
I felt stupid. I should have planned better and given myself more time. But, these are the experiences that even after years of hiking, I still learn from. The important thing being a solo-hiker is not to take unnecessary risks.
I set up my tent and set my water for supper to boil. I met a couple driving across the country at the boat launch. We chatted a few minutes and they gave me a cold can of beer. After a long and hot 18 km day, it was perfect. I don't know if I can articulate how that beer tasted. It was cold and delicious. More than that, it calmed my thoughts wondering if I made the right decision to stay the night here. What trail magic!
I woke up before dawn to howling wind, hoping that my tent stakes would hold with the rocks I put on them. I packed up and took to the trail at first light.
Today was my last day, and I would need to make up yesterdays extra kilometres before my long drive home.
I took the side trail to Agawa Rock Pictographs. As I made my way down to the pictographs, the water was quite calm, but the rock ledge was slick from the rain and the wind was blowing hard. I did not risk going out onto the ledge alone, and was only able to see the first couple of red ochre pictographs made by our First Peoples.
I crossed the parking area to the trail and continued towards Agawa Bay Visitors Centre. Soon I started uphill towards the rock slide area. There was some scrambling, but was was rewarded with cave areas from the rock slides. The trail went right through! I welcomed the cool temperatures. It was magical and I was glad that I didn't try to rush last night.
Throughout this trail I had been wondering how many before me had walked these shores for pleasure, foraging, hunting and fishing. Had others felt the chills I did seeing the red pictographs on the stones at the shore? How many had sought shelter in the cave formations in the forest?
The trail continued, and the after some last steep scrambles the trail changed again to flat grassy trails, another highway crossing of the Agawa River, and wooden bridges. I knew I was getting close to the end.
As I finished the last 12.25 km of the trail I was excited to have completed the trail and hungry to pick up a burger. I was sad that this adventure was over.
I made the long journey home in 10.5 hours. The last few hours driving the dark and pouring rain. I had to pull over because my drivers side windshield wiper broke off! Luckily, it fell right on the hood and I was able to rig it up with some cable-ties and make it home without waiting until morning. Life is always an adventure.
My entire hike was just shy of 78 km in length end-to-end. It is a beautiful trail with some rough sections. It can be very treacherous in some areas when wet or with waves crashing onto the trail.
I hiked the Coastal Trail in 5 nights, but with the low mileage the first couple of days. I would likely opt for 3-4 nights in the future and recommend the same for experienced backpackers.
However you plan your adventure, always make sure to hike within your skill and comfort level. There is no right or wrong way to explore! This trip report is intended to share my personal experiences and journey, and perhaps fill in a few planning gaps you may have.
I can't wait to go back again. It was intensely beautiful and I am still in awe!
You can follow along the day-to-day adventure on our videos series on YouTube!
What are your favorite backpacking trails in Canada? Let us know in the comments below!